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by Julia Sneden

Back at the end of June, there was an Associated Press article in our local paper that bore the headline: School Crowding Linked to Disrepair.  It seems that the pundits in the Education Department in Washington, D.C., have issued a report suggesting that overcrowding and crumbling buildings go hand in hand. 
       Well, as the kids say, duh!  You cant cram school children into classrooms like clothing into an overstuffed suitcase and expect anything but a mess and a broken container. Buildings that are already old simply cant take the strain of more bodies stomping on the floors, shouldering through the halls, using the toilets, etc. According to the report, more than one-fifth of the countrys schools hold more students than they were meant to serve. This translates to something like 17,400 schools that are at least six per cent over capacity. Two thirds of those schools (which means, in human terms, the places where almost 18 million children spend their days), have roofs, plumbing and other problems that need maintenance and/or violate building codes.
       Following the introduction of the birth control pill there was a huge dip in the demographics of school-age children, and many districts laid off teachers and closed down schools. Since then, however, the children of the baby boomers have come along. Rather than build new schools to accommodate them, many school districts (especially in the inner cities) have attempted to deal with the problem in other ways. They have enlarged class size and put students in temporaries (read trailers). They have cut frills from their programs so that they could hire more classroom teachers and use the gyms and libraries and art rooms and music rooms in ways that they were never designed to be used. They have cut maintenance budgets to the bone, and hired untrained people, for minimum wage, to clean and maintain the buildings. They have even deferred crucial maintenance. In short, they have done everything they could to avoid the one thing that could ameliorate the situation: building new schools.
       I am not one who thinks that learning cant happen under less-than-perfect circumstances. Of course it can.  In my first grade class in Redwood City, California, there were something like 36 children, and as far as I know, every one of us learned to read that year. But our school didnt have a roof that leaked, and our classroom never lacked for supplies even during those WW2 days when things were rationed. By way of contrast, I know of a school in a major southern city that in 1994 provided one box of crayons for an entire class of first graders. If the teacher wanted more, she had to buy them out of her own pocket.
       Schools with bathrooms so decrepit and filthy that children wont use them are not at all uncommon. Rooms that are freezing cold in winter and unbelievably hot and airless in early fall or late spring are a dime a dozen. Classrooms furniture is often faded and rickety and out of scale for the childs size. Leaky roofs, broken playground equipment (or none at all), peeling paint and dirty or broken windows are common all across the country. The connection between disrepair and despair is palpable. Shoddy schools are not cheerful places that are conducive to good learning.
     What surprises me is that so many adults decry the destructiveness of children today, and seem to feel that school deterioration can be blamed on the kids. It seems to me that its the other way around. You cant cram too many human beings into small spaces and expect them to behave civilly. Scientific study after scientific study confirms that overcrowding of any animal population brings out aberrant behavior. Witness the lemmings. And to those who cry: more discipline! I say that you cant ask a teacher to be everywhere at all times. The ratio of adults to children is a key factor in keeping order in an overcrowded room.
       We put children into unhealthy, unpleasant, even dangerous situations, and then we expect them to concentrate on hard stuff like math and literature. Its crazy. But beyond the bare fact that were neglecting our kids lies something thats also important: We are failing to provide our children with reasonable standards for how to live.
      A few years ago, the world began noticing a strange and wonderful thing that was happening in Italy. The schools of the Reggio-Emilia region had developed a startling educational philosophy that made great good sense to those of us who teach (or taught) small children.
      The Reggio-Emilia approach is far too complex to outline here in detail, but one pertinent feature of it bears examination. Small children, say these educators, need humane surroundings in which to learn. The aesthetics of school buildings and classrooms must promote all that is best about human civilization. They must allow each child space and comfort and something beautiful. Classrooms should have lots of natural light, comfortable furniture (i.e. well designed and of appropriate size) and pleasant spaces. Rooms should be colorful, and decorated with art works of all kinds, done both by children and by adults. There should be plants and animals, and interesting objects from the natural world. There should be materials that invite a childs investigation and use, and spark the imagination. And everything should be displayed or set out in an orderly, uncluttered, aesthetically pleasing fashion.
       The discipline in the schools of Reggio-Emilia would probably be considered quite strict by current American standards. The point to note is that the children there are taught how to care for their physical surroundings. They feel ownership and pride in them. They learn to appreciate cleanliness and beauty because they are surrounded by them. In other words, human beings, even very small human beings, respond to a positive environment.
       Its rather a revolutionary idea, but it works. It certainly wont hurt to spend our educational dollars on building new schools and renovating old ones, but lets not slip into the old tried-and-true business of throwing money at the problems and then turning away. Lets insist that our children and grandchildren be placed in classrooms that reflect all that is best in our world. Lets be sure that the ratio of students to adults is kept as low as possible. Lets not stint on the upkeep of the physical surroundings, and lets insist on proper maintenance (after all, the buildings represent a large public investment). Lets go one step beyond mindless building and repair and ensure that every child associates learning with a place that is welcoming and beautiful and clean and safe.



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